Review of The Drowning Girls, by Paula Treick DeBoard


The Drowning Girls (BTW, only one girl actually comes to a bad end) is like those fake meringue pies you see in the bakery shop windows or the plastic meat @ the butcher’s stall, alluring till you actually take a bite. Yet I could not stop listening to the audible: I had to find out how this one ends. Specifically, to discover what happens to Kelsey, the nasty girl in the story.

Except in the areas of plot, setting, characterization, and especially literary style, Paula Treick DeBoard has mastered her craft. Let me take each in turn:
Plot: an apparently disturbed 16 y/o hottie named Kelsey is inflamed with lust for Liz’s husband Phil, an Australian (tho’ his nationality plays no role @ all in the story). Liz spends most of the book consumed with suspicion of infidelity. He is supposed to have texted Kelsey an indecent photo showing Phil displaying himself next to his pool, & Kelsey manages to steal a kiss from him in his office. As Phil & Liz are unable to trust each other, Kelsey’s infatuation leads to estrangement. The author keeps foreshadowing a violent denouement that I shall not reveal, but as it could have occurred anywhere in the story, is hardly an ingenious resolution. We also have a large and vicious mountain lion in the story, & I was reminded of Chekhov’s famous axiom, that if the set includes a gun hanging from a wall, it should go off before the curtain drops. So let me warn potential readers: tho’ Kelsey spends lots of time outdoors @ night spying on Phil, if you’ve read Tom Sharpe’s Blot on the Landscape & hope for something similar, you’ll be disappointed.
Setting: The story is set in a “gated community” in Northern California called “The Palms.” Although Liz, a public high-school counselor who grew up in Riverside, is clearly dying of class envy, the inhabitants are but middle-class. The folks Liz feels ashamed to associate with drive Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses, not Bentleys and Ferraris, and have such ordinary occupations as lawyer (Liz’s husband Phil apparently thinks calling a lawyer “an attorney” makes them both upscale) and doctor: not hedge-fund CEO or dot.com millionaire. Playing golf in checkered trousers or taking their daughter to Rome for Christmas week is their idea of recreation. Nobody races a yacht in the Trans-Pac or even seems to have a condo in Vail. Everybody lives in a new house, not a San Francisco Victorian. Liz’s kitchen contains a “peninsula”—I wondered if that was a way of telling us the kitchen was so big that Italy or Spain and Portugal would fit into it, but eventually I figured out it was some kind of protruding counter-top.
Characters: Tho’ Phil was reared in Australia and therefore ought to be familiar with the intricacies of cricket, he likes to watch San Francisco Giants baseball, which for a cricket fan is like Boris Spassky’s observing a game of checkers. His bedtime reading is a snails-pace perusal of a biography of John Adams, tho’ we are never told why he is supposed to care (not so much) about early American history. Liz had an unplanned pregnancy @ 19 resulting in dtr Danielle, now 15 & a science geek @ a high school that in Liz’s reader’s pronunciation sounds like “Mars Landing” (couldn’t decide which was more unpleasant, the California voice given Liz or the Australian voice of Phil’s—both grated on my ear). Tho’ Liz takes pride in her “professional” standing, @ one point she plays a very sleazy trick to get unauthorized information about Kelsey from one of the girl’s former teachers @ another school. For me, that was something that should insure the perpetrator never worked again in education. (Ironically, Liz gets in trouble instead for something she didn’t do.) I keep wondering if I would have fallen for her ruse when I was a teacher. I fear if she caught me on a really stupid day, she might get away with it. But if I had any of my wits about me, I would have asked her number to phone her back @ the agency she claimed to be representing.)
Style: “It was less like a kiss than a near death experience” and “The ends of the head of romaine stuck out of the bag like an alibi.” These were my absolute favs. But it was also striking how in Liz’s idiolect the imperative mood is signaled by the oft prefixed phrase: “You need to” as in “You need to come out here @ once.” (This form of the imperative – pretending grammatically to be a declarative statement about the addressee rather than a command – is also a favorite of bullying police officers as well as parents.) I’d have expected a bright teenager such as Danielle to be very tempted to reply, “I don’t need to do f-bomb all; if you want me to something, just say so.”
Characters: We’ve already got Liz & Phil’s numbers. Danielle is a fairly attractive character except for her response to being (falsely) shamed on Facebook as a lesbian (these days I’d hope for “honi soit qui mal y pense” from a feisty teen) & general subservience to her bullying mother, tho’ she finally asserts herself by getting a tat. (Generally I don’t like tats, but Liz’s discomfiture made me want to stand up and cheer.) Of the minor characters, Liz’s mother in Riverside (referred to as “mom”) is blind, tho’ that fact plays no role in the plot, and her sister Ellie, who lives in Chicago, knocks herself out to be a character by having a snake tat around her upper arm. (Not surprisingly, her attempts @ internet dating keep coming up with losers!) But the biggest failure @ developing character lies in Kelsey the villainess. The author makes no attempt to explain or account for her obsession with older men. We would expect @ least some elementary attempts @ family dynamics & an exploration of her relationship with her father, but she remains simply a stock villainess spoiled rich girl.
I have given this turkey much more attention than it deserves, but I still cannot explain why it kept its grip on my attention. Part may be that it still works on the archetypal level. One of the principal criticisms of Northrop Frye’s system is the absence of quality control. In this case Paula Treick DeBoard’s book probably attracted me for the same reasons that I found Megan Abbott’s Dare Me amongst the best school stories I ever read. A good author could have given us a Kelsey of the caliber of Beth Cassidy. But the difference is in the substance.

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